Milan Mrkusich is a pioneering New Zealand modernist, and a crucial figure in the development of abstract art in this country. Mrksuich’s approach is typical of the modernist project: he deployed abstraction as a way of accessing universal truths and forms, while simultaneously pushing against the regional and representational character of post-war New Zealand art as he found it.
Mrkusich is a fascinating figure because of the extent to which his work exists outside of the traditional frameworks and narratives that surround New Zealand art; rather than presenting himself as a tortured bohemian (like Fomison) or a rough-hewn outsider (like McCahon), Mrkusich was a middle-class professional, having founded the architectural design firm Brenner Associates with Desmond Mullen and Stephen Jelicich in 1949 (a business that was perhaps as influential on New Zealand’s architecture and design as Mrkusich’s work was on our painting).
Rather than attending the Elam School of Fine Arts, where the influence of John Weeks was the driving force, Mrkusich’s art training was through a commercial art course at the Seddon Memorial Technical College. His influences were the lyrical abstraction of Mondrian and Kandinsky, and the aesthetic philosophy of the Bauhaus. His art challenged the then-orthodox belief that New Zealand art needed directly address regional concerns, by choosing instead to take an international approach.
Mrkusich was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997, for his services to painting.